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What is the definition of an alcoholic?

Have you ever been concerned about your alcohol intake? Or are you concerned that you are displaying the traits of an alcoholic? If the answer is yes, you will need to take steps towards seeking help.

We’re here to help you answer the important questions and take those steps towards help and recovery. First, we’ll help you with alcohol awareness – to understand what it means to be an alcoholic, what can cause alcoholism and talk through the levels of the disease.

Being an alcoholic can not only have serious implications for the physical and mental health of sufferers but it’s likely to have harmful consequences in other aspects of life. The physical ailments you could suffer from include liver disease, cancer and brain damage.

It’s not just you that alcoholism affects, though – you could also risk hurting those around you. Alcoholics often experience family problems, the breakdown of their relationships, career and they can also encounter financial issues.

The definition of alcoholic

Asking the dictionary to define an alcoholic is always going to oversimplify what is, in reality, an extremely complex answer. But let’s take the following definitions as a starting point.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines an alcoholic as ‘a person who is unable to give up the habit of drinking too much alcohol’ and the Collins Dictionary as both ‘a person who has chronic alcoholism or who habitually drinks alcoholic liquor to excess’ and ‘an alcoholic is someone who cannot stop drinking large amounts of alcohol, even when this is making them ill.’

If we are to take these examples and drill down further we could be on our way to beginning to understand the initial question. The thing to identify from the above is the snippet: ‘a person who has chronic alcoholism…’

So, what is alcoholism?

What needs to be made perfectly clear here is alcoholism is a disease, and the most serious problem associated with drinking. Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence is now often called alcohol use disorder and is the desire (often uncontrollable) to consume alcohol.

Thoughts of alcohol consume the mind of a person with an alcohol use disorder and they also cannot control how much or how often they drink, no matter the consequences. In many cases, even if a personal health problem or something such as a relationship breakdown has occurred, it’s still not enough to make them quit drinking.

Ultimately, a sufferer’s body becomes dependent on alcohol, resulting in a physical and psychological addiction to the substance. For example, the brain becomes dependent on alcohol for the production of certain chemicals.

What causes alcoholism?

This question is almost impossible to answer because there is no one trigger for alcoholism. There is no single cause but there are a plethora of risk factors. These can fall under the categorical umbrellas of biological, environmental, social and psychological factors and include the following:

Stressful situations/environments

It is common for people to turn to alcohol in the event of a stressful situation. For instance, someone with a high-pressure job could be more likely to drink to excess as a coping mechanism.

Mental health problems

Just like turning to alcohol for stress, it’s easy for people who suffer from problems relating to their mental health to drink. Alcohol intake slows down your reaction time, so for people with anxiety, it may feel as though it temporarily eases symptoms. As alcohol is a depressant, though, this obviously isn’t a sensible or sustainable option for sufferers of mental ill health.

Peer drinking

Do you have friends, close family or a partner who drinks regularly? If so, the dangers here fall with giving in to peer pressure, saying yes and joining them. This is a slippery slope and can soon spiral into you drinking as often as they are, or even more.

Convenient access

If you live next door to a pub or an off licence that offers cheap prices for its alcohol, you will obviously have easy access to alcohol. This coupled with any of the issues listed here could seriously contribute to an alcohol use disorder.

Advertising and media

The way in which alcohol is portrayed in the media often glamorises the act of drinking making it feel socially acceptable to drink to excess. Alcohol advertising could increase the risk of alcoholism and, in turn, be extremely damaging.

Family history

There are two arms to this risk factor. There is research to suggest your genetics contribute towards the chances of alcoholism. Not only that but if you have a relative who suffers from alcoholism and you have been a part of that environment, it can influence your behaviour.

Drinking from a young age

If you have consumed alcohol from an early age, the chances are you have developed a certain level of tolerance. This means you need to drink more to feel the effects of what you are consuming. Not only this but if you’ve done it for a long time, it may feel like a normal thing to do and become a habit.

Steadily drinking over an extended period of time

Drinking high volumes of alcohol on a regular basis can lead to people becoming dependent. This is because a pattern has been developed and you’re also less likely to identify a problem in your alcohol consumption levels.

Low confidence/self-esteem

People with confidence or self-esteem issues are more likely to use alcohol by means of support. If this resonates with you and you’d like more information, The Alcohol Rehab Guide explains the relationship between alcohol and self-esteem on their website.

There are a number of factors that can contribute towards the risk of a person developing alcoholism. Being aware and understanding the possible risk factors means you can take steps to lower your risk as much as possible. For instance, if you have existing mental health problems, arming yourself with the above information means you can make healthy decisions to suit your circumstances.

What are the stages of alcoholism?


The first stage wouldn’t necessarily raise any red flags for the individual or observers. It might start with increased social drinking or increased consumption due to a stressful environment. What is important to note at this stage is the individual will be building up their level of tolerance to alcohol, meaning they are still able to function, as consumption increases.

Early Alcoholism

The early stages of alcoholism will see an individual’s tolerance to alcohol continue to increase. The psychological effects of this stage involve the sufferer beginning to become obsessed by the thought of drinking as alcohol itself becomes irresistible. This is also the stage in which hiding or lying about your consumption begins.

Middle Stage Alcoholism

The third stage of alcoholism, also known as the middle stage will be where your alcohol consumption starts to hinder your day-to-day life. Your family, friends and colleagues will now be able to notice as you will no longer be able to hide your consumption of alcohol. This is the point when you start to reach for a drink without thinking at inappropriate times of the day or in inappropriate situations. Middle stage alcoholism is also where mental health problems can develop if you don’t already experience them. Alcohol is also now not a pleasure for you anymore – you will experience withdrawal symptoms meaning you are physically dependent.

Late Stage Alcoholism

Your time will now be consumed by the physical act of drinking alcohol and when you aren’t drinking, you will be thinking about when you next will be. Job loss and a breakdown of relationships may have occurred by this stage, as drinking is your number one priority. The physical symptoms of late-stage alcoholism will now have manifested themselves in conditions such as liver and kidney disease. In addition, your psychological health will have dramatically deteriorated – paranoia, irritability and depression are likely to be symptoms of your disease.

What are the signs of alcoholism?

Including all of the information detailed above, signs and indicators you may be on the path to alcoholism include:

  • Increased tolerance to alcohol
  • Growing interest or becoming preoccupied by alcohol
  • Denial that there is a problem
  • Drinking in secret
  • Drinking to de-stress

This is just a handful of the signs of alcoholism, for a comprehensive list, our signs and symptoms page can help.

Questions to ask yourself

With the above signs in mind, it may be beneficial for you to test yourself with the following questions.

  • Do you find yourself drinking more to be able to feel the effects of alcohol?
  • Are you experiencing issues at work or home due to alcohol intake?
  • Have loved ones approached you about your drinking? Have you then denied there’s a problem?
  • Do you think you may benefit from cutting back on your alcohol intake?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you may need to seek professional help for an alcohol misuse disorder.

How to seek help and stop drinking

Here at Port of Call, you’ll find professional and confidential help at hand.

If you identify with any of the information we’ve spoken about here, there’s a wealth of information and support on our website and you can also give us a call on 0808 252 0419.

About the author: Martin Preston

Martin is our Founder and Chief Executive. Martin is himself in long term recovery and started Port of Call to help families navigate treatment options. In 2020 Martin will open Delamere Health Ltd, the UK’s first purpose built addiction treatment clinic.

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